Building: Institute of Romance Studies Floor: 3rd floor Room: 3.1
This panel explores civil society and civil society leaders as a new sector for the manifestations of power in contemporary societies. Previous elite and civil society research come short of thorough investigations into civil society leaders as an elite group alongside other elite groups in society. While elite studies have not recognized civil society leaders as possessing the kind of formal positions and excessive resources associated with elite status, civil society scholars have seen social movements, advocacy groups or NGOs as anti-elitist per se. This dual academic neglect has implied that we lack empirical investigations into potential elite groups in civil society, as well as critical debates about whether classic elite concepts and understandings of power also have resonance for current conceptualizations of civil society. Given the changing power relations and increased prevalence of populism in Europe topics of these kinds needs further discussion.
Civil society studies have investigated the consequences of NGOization, professionalization and extensive resource differences among civil society actors. A limited set of large organizations in civil society have strengthened their status positions and expanded their control of valuable resources, such as information, expertise or ability to mobilize extensive numbers of people to push for policy change. Some are active at national levels, while others are part of what might be referred to as a ‘European’ or ‘global civil society’. Greenpeace, Amnesty, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Foundation and Caritas are key examples of such resource-rich organizations that enjoy high status. This concentration of resources has however not remained unchallenged, as current social movements and grassroots mobilization not only target political and business elites, but also civil society leaders, for having traded their democratic function as watchdogs against states and markets for prestige and status in new contexts.
Such concentration of resources and possibilities to exercise influence needs to be analyzed against the backdrop of current debates on populism and the presumed role of civil society as a challenger of the power elite of society. The anti-elitist discourse and resentment are important elements of contemporary populist moment, characterized by “a structural conflict between elites that are becoming increasingly suspicious of democracy, and angry publics that are becoming increasingly anti-liberal” (Krastev 2007). Strong criticism of political and civil society elites for being corrupt and alienated have been voiced both by political challengers and civil society actors, mobilizing the masses in countries such as Poland, France or Italy. Conflicts over who are the ‘people’ and who can act as an authentic representative of the ‘people’ cut across these debates and developments.
The papers in the panel discuss the dual positions of civil society in present Europe: as holding governments and political elites to account and at the same time potentially forming an elite group in itself with close connections to political and business leaders.